“What do you think?” Sayeed absentmindedly poses a rhetoric.
We are standing under two enormous arches. The arches are crumbling. The adobe plaster has peeled in many places, revealing the mud bricks underneath. The roof is already gone; all that remains is two ancient wooden struts. I look around, and realize the roof is not gone. It is right here, at our feet, big disintegrated chunks of clay that could no longer stand weather or time or both.
Inside the compound, the turrets of kasbah tower above us. It is just over a hundred years old but may as well be a thousand and will certainly not see through another century unless it finds, like Alhambra did, its own Washington Irving.
Welcome to the Glaoui Pasha’s palace.
In the early 1900s, the Pasha was at the peak of his power. He hosted the most ostentatious soirees. The glitterati of the time —royalty, leaders, scholars, bureaucrats and the diplomats—eagerly made a beeline to this palace. Rich wine was served by the most nubile belly dancers. The huge spreads of food had samples of exotic culinary samples from all over the world. Master musicians waited in lines to play the most haunting background music. Some of the binges lasted for several days.
Not many were interested to source or means of Pasha’s eye popping wealth. The story of the Glaoui brothers is one of rags to riches, but one with no moral takeaways and certainly no happy endings. It is a story replete with cunning deceit, blood thirst, black terror, rampant atrocities and shameless perfidy.
In the late 19th century, the Glaoui had terrorized the south side of the Atlas Mountain. He ruled the Tizi N’ Tichka with a fist of iron and a heart of stone. His fortune changed dramatically when he came across a battered army led by Moulay Hassan, then the Sultan of Morocco. The sultan’s tired army was struggling to cross the treacherous pass. The Glaoui threw open his doors and offered shelter. Then he unleashed upon them a trademark opulent orgy of wining and dining. So happy was the sultan with the hospitality that he bestowed the territory to the Glaoui. To top it, he gifted them a working 77-mm Krupp cannon. The Pasha was thus a master of a weapon that did not exist elsewhere outside the imperial army in Morocco.
The brigand had been legitimized and armed!
We walk up a winding staircase. Shafts of light are pouring in from portholes, creating a lattice of light and shadow in the narrow space. The portholes frame a splendid Juniper dotted horizon. We step inside a musty smelling corridor. The bright interiors of the kasbah could not offer a more stark contrast to the crumbling exterior.
Apparently no expense had been spared here. Every inch of the corridors, courtyards and rooms have been with decorated with intricate designs of translucent zellij.
Using the cannon, the Glaoui unleashed a reign of terror and amassed a fortune they used to hobnob with the who’s who. In 1912, they surreptitiously helped the French win against the Sultan and in return became the Lord of the Atlas.
“So guile were their operations that they were invited to Queen Elizabeth’s coronation as Churchill’s private guests,” Sayeed sounded mournful.
Sayeed cheers up when we reach the rooftop.
Not long after, the Glaoui was dethroned for failing to take the vows of loyalty for the Sultan. Thus one of the richest man in the world died a slow painful death from stomach cancer, the ill-gotten wealth seized by the state. The kasbah was left to rot.
On our way out, Sayeed wistfully points out a boarded doorway.
“You have seen less than ten percent of the kasbah”, he said, “but you have seen the best tenth. I hope they fix the rest.”
Perhaps Sayeed selfishly want another tourist draw card, perhaps he selflessly wants a piece of history preserved for the generations to come.
Either ways, I cannot help but agree when he sighs, ““In’sha allah”